The cucumber-cool Finnish brands placing sustainable growth over financial success

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“Expand? That’s not what we’re here for,” explains Kari Puttonen, the somewhat intriguing founder of Finnish microbrewery, Ant Brew. We’re standing in the neon-clad bar of his pint-sized brewery, tucked within the Malski arts center of Lahti, a southern Finnish city that won a European Green Capital Award in 2021 for its pioneering approach to sustainability. 

Ant Brew was established in a basement by six men (the ‘ants’) in 2019. It produces craft beers, some of which fall under their Wasted Potential label of colorfully canned, limited-edition drinks, infused with the likes of dandelions, raspberries – and even, ahem, bird poo…

“The grass in the local square was being ruined by goose droppings,” Kari explains about their curious-sounding Goosebumps brew. “So, we collected it up, dried and sanitized it, then burnt it and used the smoke to give the beer its flavor.” 

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It takes the concept of recycling to a whole new level

Thankfully, this hoppy delicacy doesn’t really taste like bird poo – it’s actually rather pleasant. However, what it does do, is take the concept of recycling to a whole new level and demonstrate just how dedicated the company is to the local community.

A cool 95% of Ant Brew’s output is sold within one kilometer of the brewery, as the business frequently partners with local theater, art and sports groups as part of its hyper-local distribution network. “Our idea is to grow up together as a family”, Kari says. “Our beer is almost not the point – it’s a catalyst and mediator between people and communities.”

In fact, when it comes to the sometimes shiver-inducing buzzword of ‘sustainability’, the happiest people in the world – AKA the people of Finland – are almost wondering what all the fuss is about.

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Our beer is a mediator between people and communities

According to the Finns, the nation has long been aware of their responsibility to the environment. Today, a desire to minimize their carbon footprint, foster a sense of community and encourage natural wellbeing is as strong as ever – buoyed no doubt by their government’s determination to hit the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. 

The capital Helsinki, is at the forefront. Here, cool clothing brand Pure Waste is committed to creating recycled threads out of leftover furniture textiles. They even have signs in their Kamppi district concept store asking customers if they really need to buy their clothes – contrary to the growth-at-all-costs mantra of most consumer brands.

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The capital Helsinki, is at the forefront

Meanwhile, zero-waste restaurant Nolla, also in the capital, is out to prove a point about how the hospitality industry should be managing its leftovers. As well as sourcing products from the usual roster of farmers and fishermen, it has an in-house composter that turns waste into soil. It’s then traded back with producers for ingredients, closing the supply-chain loop.

As seen with Ant Brew, though, this attitude transcends well beyond the capital and permeates deep into Finland’s collective consciousness. “It’s not that hard to be sustainable,” says Camilla Stenholm, co-owner of Eleonora’s B&B in the waterside town of Kristinestad, on the country’s west coast. “Do it in small steps; you don’t have to do everything all at once.”

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Sustainability permeates into Finland’s collective consciousness

Eleonora’s is a cozy clapboard stay which Camilla runs with her daughter, Nathalie. For them, making it environmentally friendly from the beginning was a no-brainer. “We planned the whole idea from a sustainable point of view,” Camilla adds. Her team repurposed much of the house’s existing furniture, installed solar panels (which produce 100% of the property’s electricity) and added a geo-thermal generator which takes care of all the indoor heating and cooling. 

“We’re trying to set an example for other towns and companies,” she explains. “When you choose to make a business sustainable, you choose to value the next generation. Young people are scared about the future and, as employers, it’s important to have a sustainability plan in place to get on the right road.”

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Making the hotel environmentally friendly was a no-brainer

Over 300 miles northeast of Kristinestad, in the lake-laced region of North Karelia, lies “wellness guesthouse” Puukarin Pysäkki, run by Anni Korhonen. 

For Anni, an ethical outlook was what her business was all about. “I was working as a restaurant manager for a big chain and realized the values I try to present – nature, hospitality and the Karelian lifestyle – weren’t in action in my everyday life.” 

In this supremely peaceful spot, Anni’s main goal is for guests to just be. “It’s important because we do so many things all the time,” she explains. “We’re so active and our brains are always overthinking. I want to stop that,” she says.

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Ingredients are sourced from the backyard or local farms

Everything here is slow-cooked and people eat together around the big table at dinnertime, sharing food,” Anni explains. “It’s mindful eating – you eat slowly and concentrate on the flavor and the company.” 

Naturally, all her ingredients are sourced from either her backyard or local organic farms. And food waste? “In summer, it goes to the sheep or into compost. In winter – it goes to my kids,” she laughs.

When it comes to the future of the company, her sights are set small. “Nowadays, just keeping your company alive is enough. l believe that when you do business sustainably, it will give you exactly what you need,” she concludes.

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Sustainability is also about preserving a country’s cultural heritage

However, sustainability is about more than just protecting the environment. It’s also, as the UN’s SDC targets articulate, about preserving ‘the world’s cultural and natural heritage’. 

Up near the popular ski region of Kuusamo, close to the Arctic border, the Kujala family have been practicing reindeer husbandry for the last 160 years. Overlooking the serene Lake Nissinjärvi, the Kujala farm backs onto the fields and forests that its hundreds of reindeer call home. “We want guests to know our home is a real authentic place, not something built for tourists,” says co-owner Jenni.

Pitching in with farm work is actively encouraged, from feeding the reindeer to earmarking baby cows and learning to herd – practices that have been passed down over hundreds of years. 

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Finland has all the ingredients to lead the way on sustainability

“Reindeer herding comes with a lot of respect for nature,” Jenni explains. “We look to nature to tell us when it’s time to do the herding. In rutting season, we wait for the male reindeer to collect the females – that’s when we know we need to do the round ups.”  

Looking to nature, respecting the environment, reusing waste to create something special, Finland has all the ingredients for a country that’s leading the way on sustainability. Just make sure you double-check the label before you order a beer…

Flash Pack’s four-day Finland trip goes big on adventure, light on the environment, with husky rides through Lapland’s landscapes, snowmobile safaris and side trips to spot the Northern Lights.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Ant Brew, Pure Waste, Nolla, Eleonora’s B&B, Puukarin Pysäkki & Adobe Stock 

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